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Elizabeth Warren Dreams Big in North Carolina

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On the night before the general election in 2016, Hillary Clinton finished her campaign with a midnight rally at North Carolina State University. On Thursday, Elizabeth Warren stood just a few miles away at Broughton High School, on her first trip to North Carolina, with stops in Greensboro and Raleigh on her way down to South Carolina. By 6 p.m., the school’s gymnasium was packed to the gills—the campaign’s final estimate was 3,550 in attendance—with supporters mostly sporting Warren shirts and teal signs bearing the campaign’s slogan: “Dream Big, Fight Hard.”

For whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee, North Carolina will firmly be in the “fight hard” column. In 2016, the state was a top battleground in just about every way imaginable, seen as one of the most likely states to put either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump over the top; Trump ultimately won by over 170,000 votes. There was more than just the presidency at stake, too: On top of its role as a vital swing state, North Carolina had a competitive Senate race and razor-thin gubernatorial and attorney general elections.

Next year, on top of another likely close gubernatorial election and another likely competitive Senate race, the entire legislature is up for re-election, which will determine who controls the redistricting process. Given that voting rights groups and Democrats have spent much of the last eight years duking it out with Republicans over the gerrymandered maps the GOP drew in 2011 —this week, the legislature again began the court-ordered process of redrawing the congressional maps—2020 might be even more important locally than 2016.

Warren’s event was billed as a town hall but operated more like a rally with a brief question-and-answer session at the end. A number of North Carolina legislators were in attendance on Thursday, capped by Representative Deb Butler. In September, as North Carolina Republicans capitalized on an absence of House Democrats to override Governor Roy Cooper’s budget veto, a video of Butler forcefully condemning the process went viral. In endorsing Warren during the kickoff of the program, Butler alluded to the Massachusetts senator’s own 2017 fight against Mitch McConnell, which produced the now-infamous line “Nevertheless, she persisted.”

“She knows the difference between service to country and service to self,” Butler said. “She’s got bold ideas for big problems and she’s not afraid to talk about them.”

Joining Warren in North Carolina was Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley, the lone member of the House squad of left-wing freshman legislators who endorsed her over Senator Bernie Sanders. Upon taking the stage, Pressley—whose father lives in Chapel Hill—received a standing ovation from the crowd. “This room, this looks like a movement,” she said.

Pressley hit on all of the themes that she and other progressives in the House have been pounding the drum on for the ten months they’ve been in office, notably that Donald Trump is a symptom of a broken system and not an aberration. “We’re not going to stop at getting one man out of the White House, because no, we’ve got much more work than that,” Pressley said. “The injustices that have led to this moment of crisis were cemented in public policy long before that man descended an escalator at Trump Tower.”

It was somewhat obvious that this was one of the duo’s first appearances together. About eight minutes into her speech, Pressley said that she was endorsing Warren. Warren then ran onto the stage (tripping as she came up the stairs, one of the most relatable things I’ve ever seen a candidate do) and took over. Following Warren’s speech, and the Q&A session, which combined took well over an hour, Pressley came back and did another speech, almost as if she’d been interrupted in the middle of hers earlier. This all may have been on purpose, but either way, it’s the first rally I’ve been to where the actual candidate wasn’t the last person to speak.

In another year, top Democratic contenders might have run full speed away from rhetoric like Pressley’s, especially in front of a crowd in North Carolina. And in the week leading up to the event, following Warren’s release of a financing plan for Medicare for All, moderate Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and several Senate Democrats have been pounding the drum louder and louder that “dreaming big,” so to speak, would doom the Democrats in a winnable general election. There’s no actual proof of this, of course; in much of the limited hypothetical 2020 polling that’s been done, Warren’s and Sanders’s numbers are in basically the same position against Trump as former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the top two centrist candidates in the race.

And if there was any perception that a Warren crowd in North Carolina would be somehow less progressive than one in Massachusetts, that notion was put to bed quickly. The crowd was particularly receptive when Warren spoke about putting “more power in the hands of workers” and the need for unions to “rebuild the middle class,” in a state that’s had right-to-work on the books almost from the moment Taft-Hartley allowed it. (Just 2.7 percent of North Carolina workers were unionized last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, tied for worst in the country with—you guessed it—South Carolina.) The most raucous applause, however, came when Warren talked about a ban on partisan gerrymandering.

After a somber tribute to Denzel Cummings, a staffer on her North Carolina campaign who passed away unexpectedly this weekend, an energetic and animated Warren spoke for nearly an hour, seamlessly weaving anecdotes about her life (her public-school education through law school, for example, although notably absent was a mention of Harvard, where she taught law school) into a narrative about how and why her campaign is demanding a progressive agenda rather than one tailored to appeal to moderates and Republicans, as other Democrats like Biden have called for.

On her way down to South Carolina, which went for Hillary Clinton in a landslide in the 2016 primary on the strength of her support with black Democratic voters, Warren highlighted how her plans would help people of color. She framed her student debt forgiveness plan, for instance, in terms of how it would reduce the racial wealth gap, as would raising wages for child care workers. (The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 40 percent of early-childhood education workers are people of color.) While Warren has emerged as a front-runner in recent months, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire, surveys have shown that Biden still has a large if fragile lead among black voters.

Warren also took some time to answer recent criticism, particularly from billionaire Bill Gates—a man who has somehow “given away” all of his wealth yet still has more of it than the day he retired from Microsoft—over her proposed wealth tax.

“I heard some billionaires don’t support this plan,” Warren said. “Aww. They think I’m cranky, that’s why I’m trying to do it, or that I just don’t like them … You build a great fortune in this country? Good for you,” she continued, to a smattering of applause. “But here’s the deal. You built that great fortune here in America, I guarantee, you built it, at least in part, using workers all of us paid for. You built it using at least in part on roads and bridges all of us helped paid for. You built it at least in part using police and firefighters all of us helped pay for.”

Following the speech, Warren took a few questions: one on student debt, on which she reiterated she’d pay for a debt jubilee using revenue from the wealth tax; another on gun violence, from a UNC-Charlotte alum who attended the school when a mass shooter shot and killed two students there earlier this year; and another on Israel and Palestine, from a man she attended college with. “We should respect the dignity and independence of every single human being, and that means that when we’re talking about Israel and the Palestinian people, we’re talking about the right to self-governance,” Warren said, before reiterating her support of a two-state solution and opposition to the annexation of the West Bank.

Before beginning to engage with a ridiculously long selfie line, Warren spoke to reporters, and responded to a Reuters report—since amended—that Moody’s economist Mark Zandi was skeptical that Warren’s wealth tax would actually raise the projected revenue, due to tax avoidance. (Reuters later clarified that Zandi said he stands by his estimates, and that Warren would find the revenue to pay for Medicare for All.)

“Even people who politically are somewhere else have validated that the math is right,” Warren said. “In other words, we’re now down to a political choice.” For Warren, that choice is between families facing astronomical health care expenses or people choosing not to go to the doctor for fear of cost, and asking the haves—the wealthy, giant corporations, and tax cheats—to hand over what they owe the public.

For all of the discussion of Warren’s proposals and their rollouts, this simple proposition has so far defined her campaign: We can have a better government that works for everyone, if we want it. During a riff on how big polluters and right-wing groups poisoned the climate discourse in Washington, Warren laid out how she plans to get there. “It’s 25 years of corruption that brought us here,” she said. “If we don’t like it, let’s understand that we can’t fix it with a one statute over here and few regulations over there, some twists or a little nibble around the edges over there.

“No, it’s going to take big structural change,” Warren said, and then paced the stage as the crowd went wild. “I think North Carolina is ready for some big structural change.”

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